Roman circus

June 24, 2011

Posted by The KC team

The Alliance hosts a citizen journalism programme called Key Correspondents (KCs).

By KC Javier Hourcade Bellocq

In New York City on 10 June, the UN High Level Meeting on AIDS/HIV came to a close. At the meeting, UN member countries sought to reach an agreement on how to review and revitalize their commitment to responding to HIV/AIDS.

Having participated in previous meetings in 2001 and 2006, I came to the event expecting tricky negotiations to get under way and for something genuinely good or genuinely terrible to emerge, with no middle point between the two.

But I encountered something else entirely. I do not know whether it was the circular form of the delegate boxes, the sweltering heat, the dust from UN refurbishment, the ceaseless parade of personalities or the excessive number of guards, but I emerged from that microclimate on the last day with the sensation of having been in a Roman circus.

The people’s games

After months of talks, several miles of regional consultations, and millions of emails, one feels guilt for coming away from this place with the sensation that it was all pretty much a fiasco.

It is not easy when civil society has developed a culture in which players arrive with the look of hardened veterans, ruddy and ready to get down to the nitty-gritty, but as the days pass and concessions are made, they leave somewhat meeker, saying that at the end of the day the result isn’t so bad; there are some crumbs of comfort, some redeeming features. In all honesty, I don’t believe this. My overall view of the meeting is far more pessimistic.

After thirty years, millions of deaths and millions more future HIV carriers in need of treatment, we must not settle. Yet some have become complacent to the extreme. At points we all seemed to get lost in UN speak. If, in one or five or ten years’ time, someone asks us what we did in New York we will struggle to explain what we achieved, what we changed or what we contributed.

It can be said that in 2001 we all participated – from different perspectives – in a magical moment of commitment and leadership, which subsequently led to the creation of the Global Fund. In 2006, despite not having met the ‘3×5’ target (three million people in treatment by 2005) the Member States upped the ante and set out to achieve universal access, an effort which ran until 2010. And there was progress between 2001 and 2006: to quote a relatively verifiable source, at present there are three million people on antiretroviral treatment through programs financed by the Global Fund.

However, it will require hard work and pressure on all fronts to get even remotely close to the new goal of having 15 million people in treatment by 2015. As for international commitments and goals, at best we are only achieving 20 percent of what is needed – akin to managing a hospital that only saves two out of every ten sick people who come in for treatment.

Bread and circuses: the needs of the Roman people

In periods of crisis, lean times and drought, what we need least of all are prophecies. Without wanting to make a prediction, it is important to share the somewhat pessimistic view that there is a good chance we will fail to achieve many, if any, of our proposed 2015 goals.

The funding trajectory is now in decline, accompanied curiously by a similar trend in terms of efficiency and effectiveness. And so we must ask ourselves: what are we going to do differently? How can this change? Might it not be time to bring back a little more of that indignation and mobilization, which has made the response to AIDS so unique?

Many colleagues will now be making their own appraisals of the meeting; sharing information and taking stock. It is worth evaluating whether all this effort was worth our while. Would the progressive bloc from Latin America that led the talks have been any less progressive if we had all stayed at home? Did we have to be there to convert the converts?

In the last couple of days, a few colleagues and I have listened to the official speeches at the meeting’s plenary sessions to prepare the article “Who Said What” (available in Spanish). Indeed, most of the speeches are more progressive than in the past. In some cases this is because they were made by more open administrations with more inclusive policies but it is a clear sign that civil society is managing to permeate their “discourse” and that some governments are finally coming to terms with their own epidemic. This is very positive.

Left to the lions

As was highlighted in the civil society declaration, transgender persons were conspicuous by their absence, overlooked once again. And we know by now that to omit them is, in some way, to kill them; to leave them at the mercy of the lions in this Roman circus.

References to transgender persons never made it into the drafts of the policy declaration, thus they had no chance of making it into the final declaration, even as a result of better discussions. This is a grave omission for which we are all somehow responsible. And until we are able to put ourselves in their shoes, identify with them and support them, we will continue to be accomplices in this humanitarian crisis.

Ultimately, this event has shone a light on some of the challenges that civil society faces. While it is important to be part of the official delegation we must not cease to be part of civil society (let alone use the opportunity to settle local scores). It is necessary to participate in the United Nations processes but we must not forget our activism. We must not forget the need to demand urgently that rhetoric go hand in hand with policies and programs.

We tend to mistake the words of documents and declarations with acts. But the declarations of the UN or any other multilateral mechanism are incapable alone of protecting the life of a transgender sex worker on a street corner, preventing vertical transmission of HIV or reducing the viral load. Language that is inclusive, positive and progressive is the first step on a long journey toward universal access to AIDS-related prevention, treatment and care – but it is only that: a first step.

No other meeting of this nature is on the horizon or on the agenda. And so the work to be done is above all domestic, at a time when the cause of HIV/AIDS appears to many to have gone out of fashion.

In the words of Stéphane Hessel: “I wish you all, each of you, to have your motive of indignation. It is precious. When something makes you indignant as I was made indignant by Nazism, then you become a strong and committed activist. To create is to resist, to resist is to create.”

Editor’s note: Javier Hourcade Bellocq is head of the Latin American and Caribbean KC team. He would like to thank Alessandra Nilo for working tirelessly before and after the event and for offering her ever-timely and reliable support to the region’s civil society.

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